Thursday, September 24, 2015

# 59 ~ "Play by the Bay", Part I - Sunnyside Amusement Park

This is the first of four articles that are taken from a presentation that I gave during the week  of September 21st, 2015.  Given that we have reached the official end of summer, I presented a look back at some of Toronto's favourite summertime recreational spots - particularly, those located around the harbour.  

The first is Sunnyside Amusement Park.  It was located on the waterfront, running west from the foot of Roncesvalles Avenue.  Although the park was closed in 1955, a few landmarks remain – most notably, the Sunnyside Bathing Pavilion and the Palais Royale. 

Sunnyside took its name from a nearby farm that was once owned by John George Howard.  Howard was an early Victorian architect in Toronto, who is probably best remembered as the original landowner of High Park and Colborne Lodge.  Howard’s Sunnyside Farm was located just to the north of Sunnyside Park, where St. Joseph’s Health Centre is today.

This photograph from 1859 shows a picnic at Sunnyside Farm.

Back in 1913, the Toronto Harbour Commission started up a plan to improve the shoreline around what would become Sunnyside Park.  Toronto’s harbour front and shoreline have been a work in progress almost from the day that the old town was first established over 200 years ago.  The kind of development and change that brought Sunnyside into being has come up again and again in the city’s history, and is still an ongoing issue today.  Development of Toronto's waterfront would impact other lakeside recreational areas, too. 

The plan to develop the Sunnyside Amusement Park involved expanding a thin little stretch of land that lay south of some 1850s era railway lines.  This expansion meant putting in four miles (six kilometres) of breakwater, filling in land, and the building of Lake Shore Boulevard.  This was done at a cost of $13-million, which was paid for by the Federal government.

A boardwalk was installed along the south side of Lake Shore Boulevard, from the Humber River east to Wilson Park Avenue.  This boardwalk was 24 feet (7.3 metres) wide, and made of white pine planks.  The boardwalk was refurbished in 1934, making it one of many make-work projects that took place across the city during the Great Depression.  This boardwalk would later become noted for the annual Easter Parade that took place along it, until 1953.  The boardwalk would eventually disappear when it was paved over by asphalt in the 1960s.

The actual land for Sunnyside Amusement Park was entirely made out of sand that was dredged from the bottom of the bay, along with topsoil that came from a farm out in Pickering.  The shoreline was extended about 300 feet (or 100 metres) south into the lake, over a width of nearly two-thirds of a mile (about one kilometre) from Wilson Park Avenue west to the Humber River. 

This photograph from 1914 shows the roadbed for the new Lake Shore Road.  A dredging boat can be seen out in the water off to the right.

This photograph from 1920 shows the progress of landfill & dredging in the eastern Sunnyside area.


An early building was the Sunnyside Pavilion.  Built in 1917, the Sunnyside Pavilion held two restaurants and a tea garden with views looking out on to the lakeshore. When the building was constructed, its south façade was right by the water’s edge.  As the water was filled in, the building eventually ended up about 150 feet from the shore. 

Sunnyside Pavilion, circa 1920.

In 1920, the building was enlarged and a new south entrance was added.  At this time, the pavilion became known for the Blue Room, with a capacity for 400 diners or 175 dancing couples, and the Rose Room, which could seat 300 or hold 150 couples.  Dancing would follow supper, with music often provided by a live orchestra.

In 1936, the Sunnyside Pavilion was renovated and became known as the Club Esquire Supper Club, with stage shows and dancing.  It was difficult to find a large sized photograph of the Esquire Supper Club, so you may not be able to read the sign in the image at the top of this slide.  But when it was opened, the Esquire Supper Club was advertised as the “Gayest spot in town” – how times have changed! 

In 1941, the building was converted again, into the Top Hat Night Club.  Many Toronto bands played at the pavilion during its time as either the Club Esquire Supper Club, or the Top Hat Night Club.  The building was eventually demolished in 1956 to make way for the new westbound lanes of Lake Shore Boulevard.


Swimming at the foot of Roncesvalles Avenue had been popular since the 1890s.  Although new roadways and landfill changed the local landscape over the years, people continued to visit the area.   Records show that in 1921 a total of 302,525 people visited the beach near Sunnyside. 

Entrance to the bathing beach at Sunnyside, at the foot of Roncesvalles Avenue, in 1910.

Early change rooms for swimmers at Sunnyside were less than elegant, as we can see in this photograph from 1911.  The changing sheds stand in a long row, just below the train tracks.

Despite the rather basic nature of the swimming facilities, beach goers from all across Toronto continued to head down to the lakeshore up and down the Sunnyside, throughout the opening decades of the 1900s.

Children enjoy the waters at Sunnyside in this photograph from 1907.

Sunnyside beach, circa 1909.

The children in this photograph from 1908 have found a canoe to play with, as they pose for a photographer.

Toronto beach goers knew how to dress for the occasion, as seen in this photograph from 1914.

This young woman was kind enough to pose for a beachside photograph at Sunnyside, all the way back in 1910.

Swimmers at Sunnyside finally got new amenities when the Sunnyside Bathing Pavilion opened in 1922.  This pavilion was considered to be the cornerstone of Sunnyside Amusement Park, and other recreational buildings, concession stands, and an amusement park full of rides soon followed the swimming pavilion. 

Toronto mayor Charles Maguire officially opened the Sunnyside Bathing Pavilion on June 28, 1922.  It was originally intended just to provide a space for bathers to change before swimming in the lake.  The concrete building was constructed at a cost of $300,000.  This would amount to over $4-million today. 

The Sunnyside Bathing Pavilion was laid out with two separate wings – one for men, on the west side of the building, and another for women, to the east.  Each wing held a changing area, lockers and showers.  There were 7,700 lockers in total.  There was an admission charge of 25¢ for adults and 15¢ for children.  At the centre of the pavilion was a staircase that led up to a rooftop garden, and a terrace that ran the full length of the building and looked south, towards the beach.

An architect named Alfred Chapman, who would also design the Princes’ Gates, as well as the Ontario Government Building, at the Canadian National Exhibition, designed the Sunnyside Bathing Pavilion.  The bathing pavilion only increased the popularity of the beach at Sunnyside.

The opening of the Sunnyside Bathing Pavilion only increased the popularity of the area, though few people in this photograph from the 1930s seem to have changed into their bathing suits.


The Sunnyside Bathing Pavilion was the site of the first ever “Miss Toronto Beauty Pageant”, held in 1926.

The pageant drew a large audience, as seen in this photograph below, taken at the event, on August 9, 1926.  A quick scan of the crowd shows that, maybe surprisingly, there was a fairly equal number of both men and women in the crowd.

The first Miss Toronto Beauty Pageant, held at Sunnyside on August 9, 1926, drew a large audience, as shown here. A quick scan of the crowd shows that, perhaps surprisingly, there were fairly equal numbers of both men & women.  

Ultimately, the winner of the pageant was Miss Jean Ford Tolmie, seen here in the centre of the photograph below, in the white swimsuit.  The scandal was that she wasn’t even single – so, she couldn’t accurately be described as “Miss” Toronto.  She had won the title of Miss Congeniality in the Miss USA pageant earlier that year – 1926 – although the organizers of that pageant didn’t allow her in the finals, because she was Canadian. 

The Miss Toronto Beauty Pageant eventually moved to the grounds of the Canadian National Exhibition.  It actually ran all the way up until 1991, when it was finally cancelled over objections of sexism.


The first few summers after the Sunnyside Bathing Pavilion’s opening in 1922 were apparently colder than average.  An alternative to swimming in the lake was deemed necessary, and on July 29, 1925, the Sunnyside Pool was opened.  Nicknamed “the Tank”, the pool measured 300 feet (91 metres) by 75 feet (23 metres), and could hold up to 2,000 swimmers.  At the time, it was considered to be the largest outdoor swimming pool in the world.  Admission cost 35¢ for adults and 10¢ for children. 

Crowds enjoy the Sunnyside Pool in this photograph from 1929.  The Sunnyside Bathing Pavilion & Beach can be seen in the background.

Crowds enjoy the Sunnyside Pool in this photograph from 1926.

The Sunnyside Pool enjoyed popularity with Toronto children, at least partly because there were special streetcars that would bring kids down to Sunnyside from all over the city.  In this photograph from 1929, a group of children heads off from the streetcars that have brought them down to the Sunnyside complex.

The Sunnyside Pool originally had a diving tower & bleachers on the east end.  At some point, the diving tower was removed, and replaced with a simple diving board.  This was also eventually taken out.

The coming of the Gardiner Expressway meant that most of Sunnyside Amusement Park was closed and demolished in 1955.  However, the old Sunnyside Bathing Pavilion is one remnant of the park that still remains.  A renovation in the early 1980s saw some of the old outdoor lockers and changing areas demolished, while new changing rooms were added.  The pool was rechristened and named for Gus Ryder, who had been Marilyn Bell’s swimming coach, and who had established and coached the Lakeshore Swim Club of New Toronto.

The former East Wing of the Sunnyside Bathing Pavilion, which had originally held the women’s changing areas, became a new changing facility for both women and men. 

The West Wing, which formerly held the men’s changing area, now houses a café with a patio on the boardwalk, as well as a tea garden.  The central portion and upstairs terrace of the old Sunnyside Bathing Pavilion is now used as a public space for events, like wedding receptions. 

The pool was renovated as recently as 2010.  It’s open for swimming from June till September.  Access to the pool is free, but there is a charge for certain programmes, like swimming lessons.  To the east of the pool, there is an outdoor wading area and children’s playground.  There is also a beachfront area to the south of the pavilion.  The lake is fit for swimming through most of the summer.


In the early 1900s, a boating facility known as Dean’s Boat House stood near the foot of Roncesvalles Avenue and Queen Street.  This early local waterfront business built canoes, rented boats and provided local boat cruises.  Back in 1913, when the Toronto Harbour Commission implemented their plan to develop the Sunnyside area waterfront, all of the waterfront buildings were removed in order to make way for the extension of landfill and reclamation of some of the lake area.  After the waterfront was extended to the south, new buildings were constructed to replace those that had been taken out.

The new Dean’s Sunnyside Pleasure Boats building was opened in 1922 – the same year as the Sunnyside Bathing Pavilion. Boats continued to be built the basement and on the first floor, which was on level with the shoreline.  The second floor became a dance hall.  Although Dean’s Pleasure Boats was successful for several years, it eventually went out of business, and the building developed into Palais Royale – a full time dance hall. 

Two new owners named Bill Cuthbert and George Deller took over the Palais Royale in 1932.  This would become the era when the Palais Royale reached its greatest popularity.  Some of the best known big bands from this era played at the Palais Royale, including Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Paul Whiteman and the Dorsey Brothers. 

The largest recorded audience at the Palais Royale filled the dance hall one night in 1933, when 3,000 people came to dance to Eddie Duchin’s Park Central Orchestra, from New York.  From 1933 to 1950, Bert Niosi – nicknamed “Canada’s King of Swing” – led his orchestra as the house band at the Palais Royale.  The Bert Niosi orchestra was regularly broadcast on CBC Radio, and toured Canada in 1946 and 1946.  He was also a member of Canada’s “The Happy Gang” musical series from 1952 to 1959, and appeared on such CBC shows as The Tommy Hunter Show.

Admission to the Palais Royale cost 10¢, and each dance cost an additional 5¢.  There was no licensed bar – only soft drinks were served.  Also, certain dances, like the jitterbug, were forbidden, as they were considered too risqué. And of course, dances were only held six nights a week, as dancing was not allowed on a Sunday evening.   

Patrons queue up for dance tickets at the Seabreeze open air dance pavilion a Sunnyside, in the early 1940s.  The sign in the ticket booth warns that "No jitterbug or fancy dancing is allowed!"

The Palais Royale was sold to a new owner, Joe Broderick in 1949.  It operated as a dance hall until 1966, and was then slated for demolition.  Fortunately, it survived, and was designated as an historical site.  Through the 1970s, 1980s, and down to today, the Palais Royale serves as a venue for concerts and special events and receptions.  The building underwent a $3.5-million renovation in 2005.

The Rolling Stones performed a surprise concert for 1,000 audience members at the Palais Royale in 2002.  That year marked the fortieth anniversary of the band’s formation in 1962 – just seven years after most of the rest of Sunnyside Amusement Park had closed, in 1955.

For a link to footage of the Rolling Stone's concert at Palais Royale on youtube, click here.


One of the big attractions at the Sunnyside Amusement Park was the midway area.  One famous ride on Sunnyside’s midway was the Sunnyside Flyer rollercoaster.  Opened in 1923, it was advertised as having the “dippiest-dips on the continent”.  A well-known amusement park ride designer, A. J. Miller, designed the Sunnyside Flyer.  Miller also designed several attractions on Hanlan’s Point, as well as roller coasters all over North America.  The Sunnyside Flyer was redesigned in 1933, with increased height and speeds.  After Sunnyside closed in 1955, the Sunnyside Flyer was demolished.  Some may remember the Flyer that once stood on the grounds of the CNE – this was a separate roller coaster, not to be confused with the one that once stood at Sunnyside.

Sunnyside's midway, featuring the Flyer roller coaster.

Sunnyside also boasted a stadium.  The Sunnyside Stadium for softball and lacrosse opened on May 19, 1925, immediately east of the amusement park.  The Sunnyside Stadium was the home of several popular women’s softball leagues.  It was bulldozed in 1956 and the parking lot of today’s Boulevard Club was put over top of where the Sunnyside Stadium once stood.

Sunnyside Stadium


Near the end of 1955, three different suspicious fires stuck Sunnyside.  This photograph from that year shows the fire that struck the Flyer rollercoaster.  These fires came at a bad time, since Lake Shore Boulevard was already the scene of frequent traffic jams.  Sunnyside was seen as an impediment to the development of “progress” in Toronto.  The Toronto Harbour Commission decided that Sunnyside had to go, and tenders were taken from wrecking crews.

The Gardiner Expressway went in, and progress won out over old fashioned entertainment.  Most of the attractions, rides and installations at Sunnyside Amusement Park were demolished within weeks.  Although most of Sunnyside had only been open for a little more than 30 years, Sunnyside Amusement Park remains a cherished memory for many Torontonians.  Sunnyside always ranks high in the list of lost Toronto nostalgia.


Most of the rides on the Sunnyside midway were demolished.   However, a few were relocated to the Canadian National Exhibition – most notably, the Derby Racer ride.  The Derby Racer was housed in its own building, shown here, and contained the life size mechanical horses that one might expect from any carousel.  But the Derby Racer was quite advanced, considering that it opened for Sunnyside’s 1924 summer season. 

A system of levers, pulleys, cables and runners would operate automatically, as soon as the ride was started.  Quite autonomous from the works of the ride’s operator, one of the carousel’s horses would finish first.  There was no way of telling which mechanized horse would come out ahead at the end of each running of the Derby Racer.

This photograph from the CNE Archives ( shows the Derby Racer after it was installed at the CNE. I recall riding the Derby Racer at "the Ex" about 30 or 35 years ago now - I was so terrified by the speed of the ride, I honestly don't recall whether or not my horse actually "won".  Although the Derby Racer survived Sunnyside, it eventually fell prey to vandals, who broke in one night, about 1990, and broke off all the legs on the carousel horses.  The ride was then dismantled.

For two summers after Sunnyside was closed and demolished, a small children’s amusement area known as “Kiddieland” was operated on the south side of Lake Shore Boulevard, where Budapest Park is today.  When the Centreville Amusement Park opened on the Toronto Islands in 1967, it was considered to be a replacement for a lot of the rides that had come down at Sunnyside.   Today, only the Sunnyside Pool, the Sunnyside Bathing Pavilion and the Palais Royale survive as relics of Sunnyside Amusement Park.

Sunnyside's "Kiddieland", 1955 to 1957

Sunnyside's "Kiddieland", 1955 to 1957


My "blog" on Toronto, Then & Now has developed out of the thousands of historical photographs of Toronto that I have collected over the years, in the course of giving illustrated talks and presentations.

If you have an interest in booking an illustrated talk, please get in touch.  I have many different subjects put together.  Just a few of these include :

- Toronto in the Georgian Era (1793 to 1834)
- Victorian Toronto (1837 to 1901)
- Demolished Toronto
- A History of Old Homes & Estates in Toronto
- A History of Cinema & Entertainment in Toronto
- Toronto During the First World War
- At least two different presentations on True Crime in Toronto
- Ghost Stories of Toronto

Presentations can be tailored to run anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours, depending on the needs of your group.  I come with all my own equipment - laptop, speaker, and digital projector.  Researching the history of Toronto and going on a detective hunt for old photographs is a passion of mine.

If you don't see a subject that you're interested in listed above, just ask!

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1 comment:

  1. I am seeking information about the Fox Family who operated several of the facilities at Sunnyside. Rose Fox was listed as the owner and I am led to believe that her son Max managed one of the refreshment stands. I can be reached directly at 613.318.9602 or